What were your impulses in writing this novel?
I think it mostly sort of bubbled up from my Mormon subconscious. It's a novel driven by questions and curiosities and unresolved issues rather than by a distinct, preconceived message that I'm trying to advocate. In writing Kindred Spirits, I completely shed the usual Mormon propaganda mode of trying to make us look good as a people and trying to inspire or uplift readers. I've already done plenty of that kind of writing, including six years at the Ensign magazine. In fact, I still do some of that kind of writing; right now, my correlation-friendly timechart on Mormonism is stacked deep and cheap at Costco, and Deseret picked it up too.
So this novel is more my contrary, uncorrelatable human side coming out. At the same time, I feel that much of my own testimony is embedded in the book, because I personally believe much like the main Mormon characters do, even though I treat them somewhat satirically. I'm often disappointed by our culture's blandness and minimizing of our distinctive doctrines, so another impulse for this novel was to emphasize what some would call our folk doctrines, such as beliefs about premortality and the nature and activity of evil spirits. Another major question driving the novel is whether plural marriage is ever a valid family choice. While I'm not an advocate of plural marriage, I'm personally dissatisfied with how our culture handles both historical and contemporary polygamy, and I wanted to explore that topic more in a somewhat indirect way.
You're a male author writing in a female perspective, and the novel is basically the story of a relationship. Is it a romance?
When someone first pointed out to me that I'd written a piece of "women's fiction" simply because it deals with a female protagonist and with a romantic relationship, I felt uncomfortably pigeonholed. While the relationship may be the main engine of my story, I hope there's much more to it than a "mere" romance. The unfolding relationship allowed me to touch on themes such as the nature of faith; various aspects of Mormon culture, theology, and history; sin, repentance, and the Atonement; the challenges of parenthood and marriage; and pre-marital and post-marital Mormon sexuality. I didn't come to solid resolutions on these issues, but I tried to portray and explore them in a fresh and interesting way.
As for writing from a female point of view, I think I did that mainly for the imaginative challenge of it and because I generally enjoy and respect women more than men, who I tend to find a little boring, I suppose largely because I already am one, so there's not much mystery to intrigue me. Another inspiration was my favorite author, John Updike, who has done some interesting writing from the female point of view. And I'm a big fan of Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary.
Whenever you put out a novel with a male author's name on the cover and a female point of view inside, you're going to get nitpickers who claim the male author got it wrong. However, much of the time those same objections wouldn't have been raised if it were a female author who wrote the same thing. I've had some nitpickers, but I've also had some pretty astute women tell me that I got much of it believably right. One fellow author told me that I did one of the best jobs on female point of view she's ever seen from a male author.
What kinds of responses are you getting from readers?
I've heard feedback from believing Mormons who found the novel entertaining and thought-provoking. However, most Mormon readers are looking for clear-cut affirmations of gospel truth when they read literature written by their own, and my novel nonplusses some readers because my so-called "message" is rather slippery. It's slippery even to me as the author, especially toward the end of the story, and I find that to be a lot of fun. In reconsidering my own work, I'm still discovering new implications and possible interpretations, some of them troubling even to me. Other feedback I've received prompts me to acknowledge that, while I think my novel has plenty of tension and conflict and character development, it's more reflective of real life than of the Hollywood-style plot that most American readers seem to expect nowadays.
The novel includes a fair amount of sexual content, but I hope it's handled responsibly and in a manner that's organic to the story. After all, sex is one of the main themes of the story. Many Mormon readers feel that there's no place for frank sexuality in entertainment, especially entertainment produced by fellow Mormons, but I believe we need more realistic sexuality that's handled in a manner that doesn't glorify sin. I don't think my sexual content is titillating; rather, it's almost more pathetic. Mormon readers who find my novel too explicit in parts should be grateful they didn't read an earlier draft, which contained 13,000 more words of a mostly graphic nature. Again, Updike has been a huge influence on me as far as dealing with sexuality in fiction.
I'm a believing, practicing Mormon who struggles with some cultural boredom but not with basic doctrines or standards. I'm not troubled by problems of history or science because I'm aware that we can't possibly know the full story as human beings--there are so many "unknown unknowns," stuff we don't even know that we don't know. The bottom line is that I'm inclined to give Mormonism the benefit of the doubt because I value the basic worldview so much, the all-important "As man is, God once was..." couplet. With this background and orientation, I'm surprised to find that some of my most enthusiastic readers have been so-called post-Mormons or ex-Mormons, which I must admit gives me pause. But I still stand by the novel as an honest attempt to get some weird Mormon stuff off my psychic plate and down onto paper in the form of a provocative story, hopefully with both my spiritual and artistic integrity still mostly intact.
Did you give any thought to non-Mormon readers?
Absolutely. In fact, my main intended audience while writing this novel was people outside the faith, readers who I imagined being intrigued by an uncensored look inside some reasonably plausible Mormon psyches. My characters are certainly not typical Mormons, but I know they're within the realm of possibility because much of the novel is based on actual happenings from my own life and the lives of people I've observed or read about.
I would still like to try to find a national publisher for the book, though it may be too Mormon for most worldly readers, just as it's too worldly for most Mormon readers. My agent read the book and shared it with one editor at Doubleday, who never responded. However, this agent doesn't normally handle fiction and doesn't seem to know what to do with it next, so I may try to find one who does. Halfway facetiously, I've imagined the novel raising questions and concerns in non-Mormon readers' heads that they can best answer by purchasing another book I coauthored, Mormonism For Dummies. I believe the marketing term for that would be "synergy."
I think we're currently in perhaps the most favorable decade that we Mormons have ever or will ever experience on the national scene, so I hope somebody breaks through nationally with some real authentic literature on Mormons. It would be a shame if someone couldn't ride Mitt Romney's coattails into the cultural arena. (By the way, after two terms of Bush, if Romney manages to win the Republican nomination, I think his Republicanism may be as serious a political limitation as his Mormonism, if not bigger.)
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